Signs of the times: early medieval ‘graphicacy’

It has already been remarked that I really shouldn’t be having time to blog. And, well, yes, good point actually. But I can’t give it up so instead I shall have to write shorter. This is after all something I need practice with.

Internet humour explained, from Graphjam

Internet humour explained, from Graphjam

So, okay, on 6th October Ildar Garipzanov was presenting at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages seminar, to the title, “Graphicacy and Authority in Early Medieval Europe: Graphic Signs of Power and Faith”. In case you’re wondering what graphicacy even means, it is a term of art which runs parallel to literacy, referring to an ability to understand information presenting graphically, not figurally or in text, the way, for example, that you know what a pie-chart or similar is demonstrating or what a map is showing you. I arrived late, because someone wanted to dance on the train tracks outside London Paddington as I was coming in, but I understand from Ildar that in the first part of the paper he was explaining all this and that this theory has so far largely been used to study exactly that, people’s ability to understand graphs and charts, and that he wanted to apply to something he knows a lot about, monograms and other sorts of ‘encoded’ text.1

Christian graffiti from catacombs beneath San Callisto di Roma

Christian graffiti from catacombs beneath San Callisto di Roma

Broadly, he sees an increase in the use of this sort of information from the fifth century to about the twelfth, and then a decline in favour of text once more. He stressed that the background of all this was principally Classical, from an era in which people scratched initials onto their property, and distinguished conceptually between this, where a few letters are used to signify a greater word, and monograms, where all the letters are combined into something more recognisable for itself than for the letters. The obvious case of this for the Middle Ages is of course the Chi-Ro symbolising Christ, which goes back to before Christianity was even legal, precisely so as to indicate allegiance to the banned sect: the catacombs of Milan, for example, use this and the now-ubiquitous fish to signal membership in a hopefully-secret way. And, yes, it’s the first two letters of His name in Greek, but how many people using it read Greek?2 The Alpha and Omega pairing is also a case of this phenomenon, where something is recognised in these symbols that is not just their lexical value, and there is of course the sign of the Cross, by which most people sign documents, in various more or less elaborate ways…

Silver denier of Charles the Bald, from Bourges mint, showing Karolus monogram

Silver denier of Charles the Bald, from Bourges mint, showing Karolus monogram; Fitzwilliam museum, PG.13806, Grierson Collection

Most of the questions were about monograms, which I guess is because they’re sort of like crossword puzzles, demanding to be solved. I predictably asked about coins, because it seemed to me that the fact that across the tenth century, when most of France is striking coins with a KAROLUS monogram on whether the ruler’s name is Charles or not, implying again that the word is not the thing itself, literacy was probably not declining by that much and so the two phenomena can’t simply be opposed. Ildar wasn’t claiming that they could of course, but it struck me as worth saying so explicitly. Alice Rio asked if these were really using the same methods of comprehension as, say, charts, which seem like very different animals. There’s a point there, but there was also a point in Ildar’s response, which is that the audience for these things varies hugely, no doubt, but the same is also true, including the different mechanisms of comprehension, for different sorts of text, warning noticeboard versus Scholastic theology for example, and that though the parallel wasn’t exact neither was its failure destructive of the thesis. He is just starting out with all this, although clearly from a position of considerable knowledge, so we can all expect to hear more, which I for one will be interested by.

1. See, for example, his “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464, which has loads of monograms to puzzle over in it.

2. After all, as he observed, in Genesis it says, “Deus erat uerbum“…

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27 responses to “Signs of the times: early medieval ‘graphicacy’

  1. An example of the mixing between ‘graphicacy’ and ‘literacy’ in the tenth-century could be:

    “(Chrismon) Taurellus , presbiter , qui hanc scripturam donationis vel largitionis scripsi cum litteras superpositas et rasas in versu VIIº” (Cartulario de Sant Cugat del Vallés. D. 2)

    The text is a manipulation from the then century, but the ‘letter superpositas’ mention correlated with the use of a poetic metric, seems to indicate that they really liked to literally play with words , letters and signs.

    • I’ve met that a lot, and sometimes had an original to look at with it, and what it seems to mean by versus is line of text, which is interesting but not, I think, poetic. On the other hand Ildar, Wendy Davies and I did talk afterwards of signatures in which SSS or a cross have become individualised symbols with barely any letter left; see here for some examples.

      • Versus = ‘verse’ ok, thanks! That makes a lot of sense, as the document in question it’s a comital donation, without any actual evidence of poetry in it (to my little latin understanding, that is). But on the other hand, the text have more than 600 words, so it could hardly fit in a seven lines long parchment. Unfortunatelly the original document does not exist, as the text it’s a copy made in the XII century… maybe the VIIº was mistraslated… puzzling…

        • No, what it will have meant, if it’s like the ones I know, is that the scribe had to erase some letters and insert some more above the text (superpositas, i. e. superscript) and those were on the seventh line of the document. It could, as you say, have gone on for many more but he must have got those right. An actual example with picture of original here. Sorry, I should have linked to that one in the first place…

          • Fantastic! Now it’s clear!

            It was not a comment about typography at all, but a notarial annotation!

            Thanks a lot!

            To go back to the theme of your post, (sorry for the disgresion) a beautiful example of typography with this kind of graphism, is the funeral inscription of count Guifre-Borrell (+911) in the church of Sant Pau (Barcelona), (I could not find any decent, image on the web , so I put one of my photographs here and a hand transcribed one here).

            I had the funeral inscription of count Guifre-Borrell in mind

            • Those are really useful photos, thankyou; that’s one of the spots in Barcelona I have yet to get to. It is rather nicely done, isn’t it?

              • That inscription got me hooked to catalan history.

                The church, small as it is, has been burned several times (according to some old people of the place, it’s almost a tradition to burn-it up in rebelious times).

                Google Street View does also a decent job to show the exterior facade.

  2. Didn’t know that about the KAROLUS monogram. How interesting… the symbolic authority of form overcoming sense as the primary vector of meaning. Is this almost the opposite phenomenon to the growing dominance of the literal over other exegetical levels à la Minnis…? What (if any) is the relationship between the two?
    I will be following Ildar’s work! Thanks. :)

    • I think it certainly does entail a ‘deeper’ reading, to an extent. The thing that hasn’t been mentioned in the write-up, of course, but which Ildar certainly mentioned in the paper, is the effects of Iconoclasm, which may make this sort of art, as opposed to figural art, the safer means of expression for a lot of the period.

  3. Armando Petrucci’s, Writing the Dead (Stanford, 1996(ish)) has a chapter on the 8th-10th century tendency for overtly and consciously confused inscribed texts, where unless you knew the word behind the jumble you would not know where to start with a reading. The Google Books excerpt does not include this chapter, or the photo contained there of an utterly confusing epitaph of a Bernard from southern Francia in the 8th-9th century.

    On the count from Barcelona – he didn’t die in 911. The photo reads: er(a) DCCCLII anno
    d(omi)ni DCCCCXIIII. It is a bit confusing because the D in these dates is O-shaped (a new one on me). The Spanish era was 38 years ahead of AD – so 914, which is the AD date also given. Presumably the regnal date to some Karolus or other fits with this.

    • Sorry the era reading should be: DCCCCLII. I accidently dropped a C.

      • 14th year of King Charles (the Simple) after Odo, indeed, so 14 years from Odo’s death in 899, 914 or close enough. (911 is often given as Guifré Borrell’s death date because that’s when both versions of his will are dated, but you are quite right that this was obviously not the end of him).

        The Petrucci reference is very useful, thankyou: I really should have read all of his work, it never fails to stimulate.

        • There’s evidence of different epochs of Charles The Simple in the catalan documents, much as in the rest the south frankish kingdom (I’ve been doing a little text on that).

          Osona recognized Charles since 898 (Odo died 3-jan-898). Girona seems to start at 899, Besalú at 900, and in Barcelona two epochs coexists, 898 and 901.

          So Guifré-Borrell died at XIV of Charles since 898 that is 911, but that inscription takes the year of the king acording to Osona (XIV), but computes the AD and the era according to the Barcelona usages, where the XIV of Charles was in fact 914.

          There are also external evidences that Guifré died before 912.

          • I hate these mixed-dating system answers, but I suspect you’re probably right. It’s not as if the tomb is unknown, after all. I am trying to remember too many things from too long ago here.

            • Difficult to look past the AD date and era date though. Also the guy’s age is given in the third line. I think the photo shows a reading of: qui [...]it L.
              The L is struck through, which I think counts for 40 (I’d need to check this), and the obvious gap was presumably [vix]it. If as the photo says he was born in 874, then aged 40 he died in 914 (or is his birth year only known from working backwards 40 years from 914?).

              • Sorry, I should have included the transcription (I think it was from Abadal):


                It seems that the dating clause was still readable when the transciption as made.

              • is his birth year only known from working backwards 40 years from 914

                I think that’s the case, but I’ve been wrong several times in this thread already! However, as far as I know we don’t know when any of he and his siblings were born with respect to one another.

    • Pace Joan’s transcription, I think the dates are in fact ‘spelt’ with a ‘d’, it’s just that it’s uncial. It’s clearer on the left one in the unenhanced version, the ascender sneaking off at the top to nearly join the next minim left. I may find it easier to conclude this because that’s how year dates are given in a number of the charters, where they’re used at all.

  4. I enjoy your long-form posts. I’m fascinated by the detail.

    Don’t forget the old “I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one” ploy.

    • Oh, sure, but there’s currently just not enough spare hours online to bang out long posts. Once I’m online from home this may change, though for the sake of my limited productivity it probably ought not to…

  5. Somewhat belatedly, there is a difference between saying you shouldn’t have time to blog and being in awe that you can continue blogging at the beginning of term. It was a compliment…

    Yours in awe,


    • You are much too kind, and obviously take it for granted that I’m also doing everything else I should be doing, which I am afraid probably isn’t the case, not least *reading*…

  6. Pingback: Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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